CANADA VS. MEXICO
Friday, March 25, 10 pm ET
BC Place, Vancouver
TV: TSN in Canada, UniMas in the US
No matter the result, this game is going to be a special one.
In front of what could be a near-sellout crowd at Vancouver’s BC Place (which holds upwards of 54,000 people), Canada will be looking to strengthen their chances of reaching CONCACAF’s Hexagonal round for the first time since 1997. Mexico, meanwhile, could potentially clinch their spot in the Hex with a win Friday.
After two games in the semifinal round of qualifying, Mexico and Canada sit 1-2 in Group A, after Mexico opened with a pair of easy wins in November, while Canada beat Honduras 1-0 at home and earned a 0-0 draw in El Salvador.
An upset win at BC Place would put Canada atop the group, although the more realistic hope would be a draw, to help keep the group’s two Central American combatants at bay.
Based on head coach Benito Floro’s track record, that may be just what Les Rouges will be aiming for. The Canadian manager has emphasized a tight defensive structure during his nearly three years at the helm – and one would hardly suspect he’ll deviate from that strategy against a powerful side such as El Tri.
But bunkering for 90 minutes isn’t a viable option. Canada will need to find ways to pose a legitimate threat on the counterattack and create scoring opportunities for striker Cyle Larin, who’s off to a hot start in his sophomore season with Orlando City SC.
Whatever the end result, Friday’s game will be unlike anything seen before in Canada. With over 46,000 tickets sold a week before the game, this will be, by far, the highest-attended home World Cup qualifier in Canadian history. The exact composition of the crowd remains to be seen, but it will no doubt be a rollicking atmosphere, with plenty on the line.
As one might suspect, the historical results lean heavily towards Mexico. In 12 meetings since 1990, Mexico has won seven times, three games have been drawn and Canada has won twice (including a famous golden-goal victory at the 2000 Gold Cup, which the Canadians won).
While Estadio Azteca has been predictably daunting (Canada have lost their last three World Cup qualifiers in Mexico City by a combined 10-0 score), the Canadians have enjoyed some home-field advantage of their own, earning draws in their last three home qualifiers against Mexico (two played in Edmonton, one in Toronto).
Interestingly, the last time the teams met in B.C. was at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby back in 1990, a 2-1 win for Canada. Meanwhile, their last meeting in World Cup qualifying on the west coast was at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium in 1976, a 1-0 victory for the home side.
Of course, such historical results will have no practical bearing on the two upcoming games. But to those who feel Canada has no chance of grabbing points off of Mexico this month – the history suggests otherwise.
By the end of this month, Canada’s outlook for 2016 (and, more broadly, the 2018 FIFA World Cup) will be a lot clearer – unfortunately for them, much of it is out of their hands.
The pair of World Cup qualifiers between Honduras and El Salvador this month will have just as much bearing on Canada’s chances of reaching the Hex as their own matches against Mexico will. The ideal outcome would be a pair of draws between the Central American rivals, which would keep Canada in the driver’s seat even with a pair of losses to Mexico.
Should Honduras win both, however, Canada will likely find themselves once again needing a result this September in San Pedro Sula, the place where the nation’s World Cup hopes have officially ended in the last two qualification cycles. A pair of El Salvador wins wouldn’t be great, either; it would propel them into second place in the group, barring a miraculous pair of outcomes for Canada against Mexico.
In theory, Canada could control their own destiny by beating Mexico twice. In reality, they’ll need a little bit of assistance from the soccer gods on this one.
Friday’s match is Canada’s second of the year, following a last-minute 1-0 loss to the United States in a February friendly. Canada, at this point, has one friendly scheduled this summer (June 3, vs. Azerbaijan) before finishing the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying in Honduras (Sept. 2) and at home against El Salvador (Sept. 6).
Last year, the Mexican team had perhaps the wildest and most controversial ride to the Gold Cup title in tournament history. But they still saved a bit of extra-time drama for their CONCACAF Cup showdown with the Americans in October, in which they punched their ticket to the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Then, to kick off World Cup qualifying, they dispatched an undermanned El Salvador side 3-0 and snatched a 2-0 win in the cauldron of San Pedro Sula. So, despite their almost-comical bumbling through their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, suffice to say Mexico is heading towards Russia 2018 with a full head of steam.
They were, and remain, strong favorites to easily win Group A in the semifinal round, and will likely clinch their spot in the Hex by the end of this month. That will leave Canada, Honduras and El Salvador scrambling for that second spot in the group – and Mexico’s willingness to play at full strength in September’s qualifiers will have massive implications for all three of those teams.
Friday’s match is also Mexico’s second contest of the calendar year, after a 2-0 win in a friendly against Senegal in February. The team will gear up for this summer’s Copa America Centenario with a friendly against Paraguay on May 28, before facing Uruguay, Jamaica and Venezuela in the group stages in June.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Junior Hoilett, Canada – Despite coming to the national team later in his career than many Canadian fans would have hoped, the 25-year-old midfielder has quickly become the face of the program. His play has warranted it; Hoilett’s efforts on the wing will play a big part in whatever offense Canada is able to produce.
Javier Hernandez, Mexico – Chicharito, the “little pea,” is going to be the biggest headache for Canada’s defenses on Friday evening. A move to Bayer Leverkusen this year revitalized the 27-year-old’s career; he currently sits as one of the Bundesliga’s top scorers with 14 goals in 21 appearances.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Milan Borjan (PFK Ludogorets Razgrad/Bulgaria); Kenny Stamatopoulos (AIK Fotbol/Sweden); Simon Thomas (FK Bodø/Glimt/Norway)
DEFENDERS (8): David Edgar (Sheffield United/England); Dejan Jakovic (Shimizu S-Pulse/Japan); Manjrekar James (Diósgyöri VTK/Hungary); Doneil Henry (West Ham United/England); Marcel de Jong (Sporting Kansas City); Nik Ledgerwood (FC Edmonton); Karl W. Ouimette (New York Red Bulls); Steven Vitoria (Benfica/Portugal)
MIDFIELDERS (10): Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas); Scott Arfield (Burnley/England); Julian de Guzman (Ottawa Fury FC); Junior Hoilett (QPR/England); Iain Hume (SD Ponferradina/Spain); Atiba Hutchinson (Beşiktaş JK/Turkey); Will Johnson (Toronto FC); Samuel Piette (Deportivo la Coruna/Spain); Tosaint Ricketts (unattached); Adam Straith (Fredrikstad FK/Norway)
FORWARDS (2): Marcus Haber (Crewe Alexandra/England); Cyle Larin (Orlando City SC)
GOALKEEPERS (3): José de Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul/Mexico); Alfredo Talavera (Toluca/Mexico); Alejandro Palacios (UNAM/Mexico)
DEFENDERS (7): Rafael Márquez (Atlas/Mexico); Héctor Moreno (PSV/Netherlands); Paul Aguilar (Club America/Mexico); Miguel Layún (Porto/Portugal); Diego Reyes (Real Sociedad/Spain); Néstor Araujo (Santos Laguna/Mexico); Yasser Corona (Queretaro/Mexico)
MIDFIELDERS (11): Andrés Guardado (PSV/Netherlands); Héctor Herrera (Porto/Portugal); Javier Aquino (UANL/Mexico); Marco Fabián (Eintracht Frankfurt/Germany); Jesús Manuel Corona (Porto/Portugal); Jesús Molina (Santos Laguna/Mexico); Isaác Brizuela (Guadalajara/Mexico); Rodolfo Pizarro (Pachuca/Mexico); Hirving Lozano (Pachuca/Mexico); Cándido Ramírez (Monterrey/Mexico); Orbelín Pineda (Guadalajara/Mexico)
FORWARDS (3): Javier Hernández (Bayer Leverkusen/Germany); Raúl Jiménez (Benfica/Portugal); Eduardo Herrera (UNAM/Mexico)